Prince - The O2, London
“I got too many hits!” boasted the little man in the purple suit as he swaggered about the stage a couple of songs into his two-hour set. But what should’ve made this a truly great gig, the artist’s ability to pick and choose at will the songs he really felt like playing, from a vast back catalogue, came to be one of several problems with the experience. Clearly, as a longtime admirer, my gripe is not that he has ‘too many hits,’ it’s that he tried, seemingly, to play all of them. Sure, we were aware that the O2 shows were going to be ‘the last chance to hear the greatest hits live,’ (though we’ve heard that before) but what we got, a whistle-stop, medley-heavy, over-stuffed retrospective, managed, disappointingly enough, to leave me a little cold.
With hindsight, there were signs that could’ve been heeded from the very beginning. All 5’2” of Mr. Rogers Nelson opened with none other than ‘Purple Rain.’ Purple. Rain. As an opener. At the time, it seemed doubly audacious. To open with a slow number, a heartrendingly sad one at that, as opposed to one of Prince’s many lust-fuelled slow jams, seemed to say “I’m so funky I don’t need to open with a party song.” To open with arguably his career-defining moment appeared to be a statement of typically Prince-like arrogance. Start with the song that the crowd would’ve expected to be saved for a final encore, and you imply that what ought to be the peak, in any ordinary concert, is in fact just a warm-up on this particular evening. Thus, you ready your audience for something extraordinary. Problems arrive, however, when the extraordinary doesn’t. What was probably an excellent concert will be regarded less favourably than it ought to have been, in the audience’s minds, and what seemed at the start as a bold statement of an artist’s intent to give his crowd the biggest and the best, comes, with hindsight, to seem like an artist’s intent to get the biggest and best out of the way at the start so he doesn’t have to do it later.
It was this careless attitude to the classics, getting them over and done with so that the band might proceed to the next intense, but overlong and slightly nondescript funk jam that really marred the concert for me. It’s not that when I go to a gig of this nature I expect to hear all the songs that I’d put on any kind of ‘fantasy set list.’ You don’t go to a Van Morrison concert expecting to hear ‘Astral Weeks’ in its entirety; you don’t turn up at a Rolling Stones gig believing that they’re about to give you all of ‘Exile on Main St.’ When an artist does decide, however, to give you as many of his big hits as he can squeeze into his stage time, then you expect him to do justice to them. Opinions may differ on the subject, but I for one would rather hear an artist playing the songs they really care about, the songs in which they can still get caught up and carried away, even if that means an emphasis on new or less well-known material.
Now, having said this, I’m not accusing Prince of giving shoddy performances. Quite the opposite, for the most part, in fact. ‘Purple Rain’ was, indeed, magnificent, with some marvellous guitar histrionics from the man himself, which were, in fact, very much in evidence throughout the show. The eponymous title track from the ‘Musicology’ album was given a muscular funk workout. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was far better than either the Sinead O’Connor version, or the version on Prince’s ‘Hits’ compilation. Indeed, if there was one moment of genuine brilliance, then it was the tortured vocal given by the Purple One at this point; Prince is, of course, a consummate showman, so whether he ‘meant it’ or not is up for debate. At the same time, though, that debate is an irrelevance, because it felt like he meant it. Sam Cooke was once asked to ‘hum a few bars’ of what ‘soul’ was. Jump forward fifty years, ask me the same question, and I’d direct you to any few bars from this magnificent rendition of ‘Nothing Compares.’ Whatever the shortcomings of the evening, and there were many, this one performance alone would probably have been worth the ticket price.
However, as the night wore on, it seemed that the songs were getting shorter, more rushed, as Prince seemed to be struggling to prove his ‘too many hits’ claim, with attempts to give everybody a little slice of what they wanted. In doing so, of course, nobody was totally satisfied. Certainly, once the encores began to roll around, the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince was reducing some of popular music’s most important songs to trite sound bites. We got ‘Little Red Corvette.’ Just Prince. One voice. One guitar. A song that, it seemed, I’d been waiting to hear performed live for most of my musically-conscious life. It was going to be a perfect moment. But after one line, our diminutive host pulled away from the microphone and said, jokingly: “Oh, you don’t know that song!” Cue cries, cheers, whistles and even a few only half-joking boos from the crowd. He started again, from exactly where he’d left off, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Alas, all Prince gave us was the first verse and chorus. Marvellous for what it was, certainly, but it wasn’t ‘Little Red Corvette.’ I, for one, was heartbroken. Admittedly we got another number without the band, a beautiful ‘Sometimes it Snows in April,’ but the ‘LRC’ debacle cast an ugly shadow over the rest of the night. It was not the only song passed over in this cursory manner; merely the most significant, though ‘Kiss’ was also disappointingly short.
By the time we reached what was the last encore, the man was reduced to standing at a small keyboard, programmed to play the introductions to all the hits he hadn’t managed to get through already. He’d press a button; we’d get the start of ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover.’ He’d sing a line or two. He’d move on to the next snippet. Whilst I respect and admire the decision to give a full representation of his vast oeuvre, this was decidedly not the way to go about completing such a task, especially given that here was a man who had started the show with boasts about how we, the audience, weren’t ready for the ‘real music’ that he and his ‘real musicians’ were going to provide, and was now, essentially, singing over backing tracks. I travelled from Newcastle to London to hear Prince being Prince, not Prince doing karaoke versions of Prince in 1982 simply because that’s what he thought we wanted to hear.
Encores have been mentioned several times, and they were another gripe. We all know the drill with encores, we all know that they’re going to happen; the artist leaving the stage is a formality. However, like a Hollywood movie, which we watch because, though we know the hero will triumph, our disbelief can still be suspended for the duration of the film, a good encore should make us start to wonder if we really are going to get another couple of songs. So, when Prince started the “thank you, London!” shtick only an hour and ten minutes into the show, everybody knew it was phoney. Fifty five minutes later, when he finally left the stage for the last time, I, for one, was left wondering why he hadn’t simply given one encore of ten to fifteen minutes, rather than the three, or possibly even four, that we got. The only function of his repeated comings and goings was to further the sense, initially created by the slapdash approach to some of the songs of anticlimax, of a concert that had started out looking as if it was really going to go somewhere transcendently special, but had fallen some way short of the mark.
Prince was not aided by the venue. Sound quality was no worse than one would expect from any other arena of the size and nature of the O2, but that, clearly, is hardly a ringing endorsement of acoustics that were rather bassy and boomy, giving vocals without clarity, and a lack of definition between the instruments in the glorious, airtight band. It could never be masked that the natural venue for red-hot funk is a sweaty club, not a cold, cavernous arena. That said, Prince’s stage set up hardly helped to overcome this. The staging was, indeed impressive; a vast, disco-lit version of the symbol with which he is associated. However, rather than having the band on the stage, the musicians were in an unlit, orchestra-style pit formed inside the circular section of the symbol. Great funk jams are all about the interplay between musicians, the way they play off, and take inspiration from each other, with fluid spontaneity. Prince’s persistent references to his ‘real musicians’ seemed to suggest he understands this, making the decision to ‘hide’ the band, occasional strutting around by saxophone legend Maceo Parker aside, from the audience, all the more mystifying. The stage was constructed as such so that Prince could play the concert in the round. This, like the decision to squeeze as many hits in as humanly possible, was another valiant idea that didn’t, unfortunately, succeed to any great degree. Just as the snippets of songs gave something to everybody, but everything to nobody, in the round everybody got a little of the performance, but nobody experienced the entirety. This merely added to a general sense of a concert that was certainly good, very good in fact, but which never quite hit the heights it ought to have reached.
I realise that it seems I have been immensely critical of what was, in fact, a highly accomplished night of first-rate entertainment. I stand by all I have said thus far; there were a great many shortcomings in the show. Really, the little feller was a victim of his own publicity machine. Pop genius he maybe, but he’s only a man, and, really, he could never have lived up to the hype he’s been generating for his London shows. That still doesn’t excuse the way he went about some aspects of the performance; I’d still have preferred fewer songs, played more sincerely, I’d have preferred to see more of the band, I could’ve done with fewer encores. Maybe during this O2 residency Prince will address some of these issues. Frankly, a 25 year career of idiosyncrasies and an unerring devotion to his own judgement for good or ill would indicate that my wishes will not be fulfilled. This was not a wasted night; far from it. I expect with time I will come to look upon ‘the time I saw Prince’ somewhat more fondly. Looking objectively, at what I got, rather than what I didn’t, I still have to rate the concert fairly highly. However, I suspect I will remain haunted by the following fact: Over the past two years or so, I have been lucky to see three of the most important artists in the history of funk and R&B. I saw the great James Brown about eighteen months before his death. I’ve seen George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. And last night I saw Prince. Brown was a 70-something-year-old recovering from cancer, heavily reliant on his band. Clinton, a 60-something-year-old, overweight, apparently as stoned as ever, with a voice that’s long since been shot to pieces, had to lean on the musicians too. Prince; lean, mean and under fifty years of age, with a voice and body that appear not to have aged in three decades, seemed in the best position of the members of this Funky Trinity to inspire, to amaze, and to entertain. And, sure enough, he sang and played better than either Brown or Clinton. But in terms of all the things funky music really ought to be about? Putting a glide in my stride and a dip in my hip? Pure, unadulterated good times? Well, sorry Prince, but, for all your efforts and all your boasts, I had far, far more sheer fun (or should that be sheer funk?) with both James and George.